I graduated college on May 17, and less than 24 hours later boarded a plane for a two-week tour of Europe. London, Paris and Madrid are exciting, but expensive. Even such a short trip can prove financially draining, so here are some tips for anyone looking to travel across the pond this summer.
- RAIL NEVER FAILS. The length of your trip as well as your chosen destinations determine whether it's best to travel by train or plane. If you go by train, Rail Europe and Eurorail are the best providers. They offer express speed trains and have package deals for students and different age groups, such as the Eurorail "Global Youth Pass." However, if you plan a shorter trip with multiple countries, flying may be a better option. It can cost about the same as a rail pass and although the trains are fast, they can still eat up entire days out of your trip whereas flying only takes a few hours.
- WALK YOUR SAVINGS TO THE BANK. Make sure you invest in a quality pair of shoes; the best and cheapest way to travel around any city is by foot. Of course, you can't walk everywhere all the time -- so the next best thing to do is to look into the metro passes each city has to offer. In England, the Oyster Pass will save you a ton of money on their extremely easy-to-navigate Undergrounds. Paris has convenient bike rental stations throughout the city. During my trip, I only took one short-distance taxi in Madrid. It's easy to avoid expensive taxis all together and don't bother renting a car unless you plan on traveling outside major cities.
- HELPFUL HOSTELS. Staying in hostels is a must when you're young and traveling in Europe. Ignore all the horror stories you've heard; it's not that bad. Hostelworld.com is good for booking -- it breaks down price, quality, location and customer reviews -- but it requires a down payment. Check to see if it includes a free breakfast and beware; some hostels charge for items such as lockers, Internet access, adaptors -- even towels. Most hostels are generally clean, accommodating and helpful. Plus, it's a great way to meet new people from all over the world.
- DINING DOs. Eating in Europe was one of the most exciting aspects of travel, but also one of the most expensive. Definitely splurge here -- it's worth spending a little more for authentic food you can't get in the States, but beware hidden dining fees. Unlike in America, the tip is either included in the bill or not expected at all. When ordering water, make sure you specifically ask for tap -- most people drink mineral water, which is not free. The same goes for bread. At some restaurants I went to, bread was an unexpected charge to the bill.
- GRUB ON THE GO. Unfortunately you probably can't eat out at nice restaurants for every meal. Don't be afraid to hit up a McDonald's every now and again -- it carries Euro-specific items. And rest assured it's fine heath-wise to grab something from a street vendor. In Paris it's common to buy a baguette and eat it on the go for a 95-cent snack. Supermarkets are also big money savers -- get some great authentic food in a local supermarket and make your own meal for a lot cheaper than a restaurant.
- RULES OF ATTRACTIONS. European sights can get expensive, but museums and attractions have deals too. No trip to London is complete without a stop to the Natural History Museum, home of the Rosetta Stone. Thankfully, the museum is free, as are almost all the museums in London, such as the Tate. Buildings and architecture like Big Ben and the London Bridge are of course free to view. The Louvre in Paris costs nine euros and is worth every cent but if you find yourself not being able to afford the world-famous art museum, spending the day outside the Louvre is free and highly recommended.
- PARTY SMART. College students love to party and the nightlife in Europe is completely different from America. In Madrid, for example, bars don't open until midnight and clubs don't get going until 3 a.m. At most places, the cover was around 15 euros for two people but it included a free drink for each person. Drinks cost around 9 euros, but are gigantic compared to back home -- and you don't need to tip bartenders. Most clubs close around 6 a.m. but some don't have a closing time, so you can expect up to seven hours of dancing in some places -- if you're not too tired from all the walking and sightseeing. But come on: You're young and in Europe -- sleep when you're 30-something!
- AAA SAVINGS. If you are an AAA member it may be a good idea to invest in a Travel Money Card. Pickpocketing is a problem in many cities across Europe so it may not be the best idea to carry a lot of cash. The card functions like a Visa ATM card that you can use anywhere. Not every merchant accepts travelers checks so the Money Card is more functional, but it charges a $3 transaction fee and uses the exchange rate on the day you use the card. The best thing to do is withdraw enough money for the day in large amounts to avoid multiple $3 charges and exchange rate charges.